[Note: Thinking and feeling out loud. Not a manifesto.]
When I wrote my review of The AI Does Not Hate You, my original plan was to close with this. However, as I kept fiddling with it, it grew longer and drifted further away from relevance to the book, so I decided to end the review on a different note and make this into a separate post.
The AI Does Not Hate You is about the rationalists, who are pretty concerned with the risks of artificial intelligence. There’s also a major transhumanist aspect to the community — i.e. topics like radical life extension or uploading your mind into a computer are discussed with some enthusiasm.
One way to get a shot at that is to arrange to have your body cryogenically frozen after your death, in the hope that it will be possible to resurrect your body or reconstruct your mind in the future. The practice is far from universally endorsed by rationalists, but still much more popular there than elsewhere. This excerpt from the book illustrates the thinking:
Most dramatically, he [professor at Smith University, affiliated with the rationalists] is taking steps to extend his life, for a very simple reason: if the singularity comes, then the difference between dying the year before it and the year after it is almost incalculable. ‘If we do achieve the singularity and allow indefinite life extension, it could easily happen after I naturally die, so the expected value to me of living a few more years is huge.’ If there’s, say, a 0.1 per cent chance that those extra few years might get him to the glorious future, and the glorious future means a subjective life of a million years, then that 0.1 per cent chance translates to an expected value of a millennium of extra life.
A shot at eternal life! Yeah!
Maybe I’m broken somehow but that isn’t something I spend my time longing for. I’m not sure why. Yes, death is a terrible and sad thing but I’m not entirely convinced there are better alternatives.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Living forever would have appealed to me when I was 20, I think. It would involve a lot of radical changes and… I’m 36 now, I have kids, and I think I’ve stopped enjoying change. Or, maybe that’s the wrong way of looking at it. I think we enjoy change when we are young because we haven’t experienced very much of it. Newness is still, well, new.
When you’re a child society doesn’t change, it is what it has “always” been, because as children we’re not aware of change before we were born. To me, the world of the early 90’s was the beginning of time; things had been like that for my subjective forever. By the time you get old enough to notice the societal change that goes on all the time — because you start having a history of earlier understanding of the wider world to compare the present with — it feels like things are starting to change, and that’s exciting. It’s exciting because this change feels like the start of a journey, a feeling that is reinforced because it happens at about the same time your own personal journey into adulthood begins. There are a few years there, of formative experiences, of important “firsts”, and of growing into your place in the world.
The very nature of this period makes it temporary. Adolescence is a move from stasis into change and of expansion of the scope of our experience. Expansion can’t go on forever because the world is only so large, and societal change will stop being that big, singular “event” and instead become a process that just goes on and on and on in the background, without a clear beginning, middle and end.
Youth is like spring, not a steady state but a transition. It’s in the nature of transitions to end. They can be followed by others, but transition after transition after transition become just a new steady state. You’re only plucked from stasis and brought into a grand narrative arc like some Campbellian hero once in your life. The second time is not the same. The fifth barely registers.
A trivial but telling illustration is my experience with sports. In my mid-teens I was very into watching team sports, especially football (that’s “soccer” to the yanks), handball and ice hockey. I made sure to watch all the games with the national teams, even the meaningless friendly games, and I also had a favorite hockey team whose success I was quite emotionally invested in.
The intensity of meaning was greatest just a bit after I discovered the interest, and it remained high for maybe 2 or 3 years, before the illusion of a grand narrative began to crack. All these games didn’t really lead anywhere, did they? It didn’t add up to anything bigger. After one ice hockey world championship came another, and then another. They started to blend into each other, and it just became normal. As things happen again and again their perceived significance go down.
The neverending narrative is a long shot
I believe the key to a meaningful life is feeling part of a narrative arc. And just like fiction, our lives are made up of little smaller arcs that together add up to a big one. The differences between me at 10, at 20 and at 36 lead me to believe that our life story is ideally made up of different kinds of sub-stories at different points in life. The stories of youth are focused on our own individual experiences and growth. But that ends because new discoveries and new growth must be bigger and bigger to subjectively feel as big, compared to a steadily rising baseline. To use a physics metaphor that will help no one: with personal growth our selves get larger and larger, and it takes stronger and stronger forces to move them. In practice this means that the magnitude of change on both the personal and the societal levels need to increase exponentially in order to keep giving us that feeling of “lift off”.
I feel this is the function that dreams of space exploration and limitless expansion into a vast, virgin universe performs in the minds of many transhumanists. Us “humans 1.0” being one link in the chain from lifeless matter through bacteria and animals up to freed-from-the-flesh gods-in-everything-but-name is one hell of a story — a perfect meaning-making narrative (as well an echo of the old Great Chain of Being).
Would eternal life work without this massive story to experience it in? I don’t know. We’re taking a big risk if we count on it happening and it being all we dreamed of and more. And to me, focusing on one piece of the puzzle, personal immortality, and expect the rest to work itself out, forever, seems risky.
Then there are my doubts that even if we manage to hit that sweet spot perfectly, we still might not want to live in that story forever. We change with age, remember?
In defense of death
Just to be clear, by writing a section called “in defense of death” I don’t mean to defend early death. That’s quite another story. If it hadn’t been for early death I wouldn’t have grown up with only one parent and one grandparent. I am not a fan.
However, when you get old I’m not convinced you’ll want to keep going. Now, Eliezer Yudkowsky has tried to prove mathematically that everyone wants eternal life.
I want to live one more day. Tomorrow I will still want to live one more day. Therefore I want to live forever, proof by induction on the positive integers.
…the main character in his book Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality said. I don’t know how seriously he means it, of course. It could just be a joke, but taking it at face value for a second I don’t get the impression that it describes how the very old tend to feel. My grandmother, who I spent a lot of time with as a child, passed away just about a year before turning 100. She remained present and independent until the end, but had for years casually commented that she was ready to go. I believe her. I think she felt her story was over.
This would perhaps get me branded a “deathist” by Yudkowsky and those who agree with him, and I get it. I do. I get the whole sense that there’s something insane about not feeling like death is the ultimate enemy to be conquered. It’s a great grand story. At the same time I feel no desire at all to freeze my dead body to possibly be revived in a radically different future when everything and everybody that made me feel at home is gone. I don’t think anyone is wrong or bad for wanting that, but it doesn’t work for me.
Aren’t I falling in to the trap of regurgitating stale, quasi-wise clichés like “death is what gives life meaning” because my spirits are broken and I’ve just given up, trying to justify why this terrible state of affairs is good, actually?
From The AI Does Not Hate You:
About 150,000 people die every day, worldwide. Most of us wave that away, saying that death gives life meaning, or that eternity would be boring. The transhumanists (not unreasonably, to my mind) ask: OK, but if death didn’t exist, would you all be saying, ‘We ought to limit our lives to about 80 years, to give them meaning?’
The classic “since you defend X, do you think we should create X if it didn’t exist?” is a pretty strong argument against most X-es, but I’m not buying it this time.
I don’t believe that “death gives life meaning”. I do suspect that the mental architecture responsible for us experiencing meaning has developed under the constraint of a limited life span.
In the hypothetical case where we did live forever naturally, our minds would be adapted to that. We’d have a very different psychology all around, one that didn’t include the same kind of “psychological life cycle”. As it is I’m doubtful that simply removing death would work as expected.
Even if we managed to retain that youthful situation of an expanding world practically forever we might be unable to experience it “correctly”. What makes us feel happy and content changes throughout life and I’m not confident there is anything that could keep us fulfilled forever. A 6-year-old, a 26-year-old and a 66-year-old have different emotional needs. What needs does a 300-year-old have? Who knows. Can they be satisfied? I’m not sure.
But Yudkowsky has a point. Most of us don’t look forward to dying. I certainly don’t. But most of us don’t necessarily long to go on forever either, if the unpopularity of cryonics is anything to go by.
Where does that leave us?
The Story of Your Life
Our lives are like stories, or rather, stories are made to mirror our lives. They have beginnings, middles and ends. And note what those ends are like. I’m not talking about the ends of experimental, subversive stories but archetypal, classic ones, designed to comfort, soothe and satisfy. In other words, to make you feel the way you want to feel when you’re about to die.
Stories end. But they also continue, without us, the reader. “They lived happily ever after” it goes. The story ended but the characters and setting did not. That all goes on, out of sight. That’s a satisfying story, and I suspect, the model for a satisfying life.
Kevin Simler, in an outstanding essay on meaning, says that for something to be meaningful it has to have consequences that stretch into the future, without perceivable end:
[N]ote the recursion: the meaning of a thing is defined by its connections to other meaningful things. This may seem circular or question-begging, but I think that’s precisely the point. Few things are meaningful all by themselves; most derive their meaning from the things they point to. Of course, the buck has to stop somewhere, at some source of inherent or axiomatic meaning. In a religious context, for example, God is the ultimate arbiter of what is or isn’t meaningful.
Without something playing the role of God, the buck doesn’t stop and meaning is never “cashed out”. It has to remain pointing into the future forever, always deferred. This doesn’t sit well with us living forever. We’d catch on.
Stories end. And “happily ever after” is just the trick to make them satisfy us. It offers up the best of both worlds: an end and a continuation at the same time. The continuation means we can defer meaning arbitrarily far into the future, while the end means we won’t have to be there to see it continue to be deferred forever.
You can’t see it but you know it’s there; you know it’s there but you can’t see it. Note how similar this is to the promise of heaven: things continue, but in a vague, static, unspecified way that moves into a vanishing point. You’ll go on, sure, don’t you worry, but the story is also over, because nothing really happens in heaven — there’s no future there, nothing to build or affect. It’s over and it’s not over. Over and not over. It needs to be both because none of them work on their own.
What I’m trying to say is that I suspect our psychology is set up for us to find it satisfying to die while leaving descendants to carry on after us — to be a single link in a chain long enough to seem infinite.
I want to live a long and happy life, but I think I do want to come to a point when I’m satisfied, a point when I feel like it’s a good time for the story to end. How satisfying can a story be if it never concludes?
And they died happily ever after.
Thanks to Kevin Simler for giving me feedback on a draft of this essay.
• • •
It’s interesting how I find being a fan of the Eurovision Song Contest meaningful (explained here) despite having seen it every year since 1992. I did lose some enthusiasm at about the same time sports started to lose its sparkle, but the love is hanging on. I’ve even managed to reheat the cooled relationship somewhat since my first article on it four years ago. Why? I’ve been lucky with the timing. Everything in the world gets smaller as you grow up, but since the contest and its fandom has become massively bigger since the 90’s, it feels about as big to me now as it did as a kid.
This essay on the movie The Big Chill by Lena Dunham is the best thing I’ve read on youth, how it’s fleeting and uniquely meaningful in a way that we try, and fail, to recapture for the rest of our lives.
I suspect that when this doesn’t work right we become unhappy and have personal crises.
It’s almost as if the idea appeals to us on a very deep level.
This story is the same one that was in vogue during the late 19th century and the middle of the 20th: Progress with a capital P. I’d love to really believe in it; I’d love to think we can solve all problems and live in perpetual happiness in a perfect society, but history seems to have shown that our psychology is a lot more devilish than that. Solving all our practical problems — and most of the biggest problems that haunted us throughout history have actually been all but solved in the wealthy part of the world (even though some still exist of course) — doesn’t seem to make us perpetually happy the way you might naively expect. I believe in progress, obviously, but improving society is a lot more difficult than it once seemed, and I struggle to believe there’s some big thing or list of things we can accomplish that will let us live happily ever after.
I take this possibility quite seriously. My career is comfortable but stagnant and I don’t know where to go from here, and the pressure of parenting small children has robbed me of almost all feeling of control over my day to day life. My experience of agency is at historically low levels. It’s entirely possible I’d feel differently about all this if circumstances were different. Even so, it’s interesting to explore the justifications my mind cooks and serves up.
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